I was walking around my classroom as my eighth-grade students were taking turns reading parts of a secondary-source historical piece on the aftereffects of the French and Indian War. I like to have my students read various levels of text, starting with simple texts and gradually increasing the complexity. It was time to push my students toward a more difficult read to try out the literacy skills we had been practicing. I chose a piece that was above grade level that I knew would create some struggle and frustration to see how well they could handle it.
I stopped at a table while Juan was reading and listened in to the group of students.
Shelly said, “Juan, you must be reading that wrong—it makes no sense at all.”
“I’m reading what it says. I can’t help that it makes no sense.”
“Let me read it.”
Shelly read a bit. “Wow, Juan, I guess you are right.”
After a little more time observing my students and listening to them read, I realized that it was time to call a time-out for a special kind of minilesson. Complex text for my students usually means that they need to pause after reading each sentence to think about what is written. The vocabulary is usually a struggle for them, and there are many ideas to keep track of.
I had the students go back to the start of the reading. I asked them to look through the text and find where it started to become complex and confusing for them. Their answers were pretty much all the same. They expressed confusion right after the general introduction and brief review of the French and Indian War that led the colonists to become frustrated with King George III of England.
I decided to combine a read aloud with a think aloud to model the process of tackling this and other challenging texts.
I asked my students to follow along while I read by having the text in front of them. I also asked them to listen to my reading and thinking as I read.
I started with an excerpt from this text:
Yet, this wasn’t the beginning of the difficulties. Relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain had begun to strain in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years’ War. The war had plunged the British government deep into debt, and the British Parliament sought to exploit the colonies for quick funds. They enacted a series of coercive measures to pull revenue from the colonies. Along with these acts, Parliament closed Boston harbor, and sent 4,000 British troops to Boston, to patrol the “rebellious areas.” Parliament believed that these acts were perfectly legitimate, that the colonies needed to pay for the maintenance of the British Empire. The colonies thought differently.
I read the first two sentences aloud, then stopped and looked up in the air as if in thought. “So the war made the colonists and Britain angry with each other.”
I read the next line aloud and said, “Britain spent a lot of money on this war and expected the colonists to pay for it. Hmm. I wonder how the colonists felt when that happened.”
I read the next sentence, which had vocabulary that I was sure confused my students and left them lost. “We know that revenue means incoming money from our last unit, but what does ‘They enacted a series of coercive measures’ mean?”
We had some class discussion about what each word might mean on its own and what the phrase might mean. My students came to the conclusion that enacted meant that they created and pushed these things onto the colonists. After some time, we agreed that they should look up the word coercive. My students decided that coercive measures meant forced ways. We rebuilt the sentence to say, “They [the British] created a series of forced ways to pull money from the colonists.”
Once my students heard the meaning of this sentence and made sense of it, they were engaged. They realized that this was the start of an argument that was not going to end well. The mumbling in the class was on target and let me know they were ready to move forward.
I continued to read each sentence aloud and think aloud about its meanings. By the time I finished reading and thinking, my students were more than ready to jump in and get back to the reading in their groups so they could discuss their predictions, connections, and feelings about what they were reading.
Reflections on Learning
I did this same exercise with my other classes with similar results and successes.
What I realized was that my students were struggling with a few key elements of reading this piece.
First of all, the vocabulary was a bit complex for them, and they needed to be taken through thinking about context and meaning. For some words, they realized that it was simply time to jump to the dictionary.
Next, my students were having a hard time wrapping their minds around what each sentence was saying. They needed to slow down and consider each sentence instead of reading along and finishing the entire paragraph and then thinking they needed to read it again and again, although they still weren’t understanding it.
Finally, my students needed to hear and see the entire paragraph come together and realize that once they started to grasp its meaning, the rest became easier and easier as they progressed.
After I turned the reading back over to my students, I walked around and listened in on the reading and the conversations. I noticed that they were reading a bit more slowly. They were also stopping in the middle of sentences and thinking aloud and saying things like, “I think what this is saying is . . .” I also heard students having conversations about vocabulary and summarizing paragraphs when they finished them.
Since my students have taught me that they need this, they have been advocating for themselves if they need a bit of a kick start with some text to get them using these skills. I have also watched my students use these skills when analyzing complex primary sources with unusual language such as the Gettysburg Address.
By listening to my students and noticing their struggles, I was able to create an on-the-spot minilesson that has taught them several transferable skills. It has also taught me the importance of walking around and listening with a diagnostic ear, looking for ways to best support my learners.